A Spanish Tragedy in the Embassy’s Office

Stones, sand and olive trees. © Charles Thibo
Stones, sand and olive trees. © Charles Thibo

In the early 90s, I did an internship at Luxembourg’s diplomatic mission in Geneva. Since Geneva was (and still is) an expensive place, I often stayed at the office for my lunch break to eat a sandwich. And since the head of the mission was often away, I had a lot of time to go through the diplomat’s CD collection. The man had excellent taste as far as I can remember, and it is through him that I learned about the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo (1901–1999) and his Concierto de Aranjuez. It was love right from the beginning! It became a lasting souvenir.

In love with a secretary and a concerto

I close my eyes and I can see myself sitting on the office floor, the CD box on my knees and the CD player playing the concerto once, twice, three times – until our secretary popped through the door and asked: “Mais Charles, qu’est-ce que tu fais là?” I most likely blushed – she was ravishing and I was a little in love with her – and said: “Ahem, this is incredibly beautiful!” And she would smile, smile, smile. She inquired whether I liked the Spanish guitar and it was only then that it hit me: There was a guitar! I was so mesmerized by the music that I didn’t realize that I had heard for the first time a guitar in classical music piece.

A lonely hacienda and a bloodbath

Listening to Rodrigo’s piece – I have a recording by Gerald Garcia and the Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra – recalls the images I associated on Geneva with the music: A barren plain somewhere in Spain, a few bushes among a landscape of stone and sand, shaped by the wind and the occasional rain. I see a lonely hacienda with a crippled olive tree in the yard, it is noon, a glaring heat makes the air shimmer. There’s tragedy in the air. A messenger arrives on a horse, he briskly enters the house, finds the lady and tells her the disastrous news: Her beloved son has been killed in a fight. And the weeping and mourning starts…

Strolling through the Royal Gardens

So far for my ideas about the first movement. Actually Rodrigo had something totally different in mind when he composed the first movement. While researching the story behind the piece, I found out that Rodrigo wanted to describe in the first movement the Royal Gardens of the Palace of Aranjuez, south of Madrid. A place where Rodrigo and his wife Victoria went for a stroll from timevto time to escape Madrid. The musical history researcher Graham Wade points out that these “excursions were not languid stays in hotels, for the couple was without money or employment”. When King Juan Carlos I. granted Rodrigo in 1991 the title of a marquis, he named the composer “Marqueses de los Jardines de Aranjuez”.

Legends around the agadio

The adagio takes up the mourning theme from the first movement while the third movement is full of renewed hope and joy: a rondo composed in the style of the dances popular at the Spanish court in the 18th century. Legend has it that Rodrigo mourns in the second movement his stillborn son, paints his incredible pain and expresses his prayers to God to let his wife live.  But Wade says that recent research and in fact Rodrigo’s own recollections tell a different story. Rodrigo writes in his personal notes that he started out on the second and third movement in November 1938, not the following May when Victoria suffered her miscarriage. “If Rodrigo could retain in his memory everything relating to the Aranjuez [concerto], it would seem strange that the loss of a child was not mentioned”, Wade concludes in the July 2015 issue of the magazine “Classical Guitar” [updated paragraph  thanks to the German guitarist Heike Matthiessen].

Folk tradition instead of serialism

Rodrigo, blind from an early age on, composed his concerto for guitar and orchestra in 1939 in Paris. The premiere took place in Madrid on November 9, 1940. Rodrigo had moved to Paris in 1927 and studied with Paul Dukas. He fled back to neutral Spain when the Germans invaded Western Europe. After World War II, he toured Spain, Europe, the Americas and Japan, and, according to Oxford Music Online “came to occupy a position in Spanish musical life close to that of Manuel de Falla […] Like his mentor, he cultivated a style far removed from the major currents of European musical development.” 12-tone-music, serialism, sound clusters* – that did no stimulate Rodrigo. He aimed to reinvigorate Spanish classical music by relying on folk and Baroque traditions. And I am very grateful he did.

 © Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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3 thoughts on “A Spanish Tragedy in the Embassy’s Office”

  1. Having been to the Aranjuez gardens about two years ago, it is a very beautiful place. However, I never realized that the second movement is a movement of mourning, thanks for sharing that.

    By the way, have you ever heard Miles Davis album Sketches of Spain? It takes the second movement and transforms it for trumpet. Outstandingly beautiful.

    1. Miles Davis???? Wow! I will have to check that! Thank you. Isn’t it thrilling how many cross-links you can find between jazz and classical music once you start looking/listening for them?

  2. I love it.

    Funnily enough, all of yesterday, I played almost my entire Spanish music CD collection. I left out the Concierto de Aranjuez. Will remedy this morning (my recording is by Narciso Yepez (1967).

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